Our Opinion: Rural communities need more transportation help

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To residents in the largely rural areas of Western Massachusetts, two facts of life are abundantly clear: Just getting around the state's sparsely populated regions is problematic; and what little attention their transportation difficulties get has to be clawed out of Beacon Hill. Like other Bay Staters, they dutifully send their fair share of transportation taxes to Boston, but while the capital wrestles with conundrums like how to assimilate driverless cars into the traffic stream, many in the Berkshires and other western counties are carless drivers who face hurdles simply attending to their basic needs.

The Berkshire County Selectmen's Association, which comprises representatives from 30 town boards, issued a December report to the Rural Policy Advisory Commission, a research and advisory body created by the Legislature to focus on the welfare and vitality of the state's rural communities (Eagle, Sunday). It declared that, thanks to the sorry state of viable transportation options, rural households without cars ought to be considered "disadvantaged." This may be hard for residents in an urban core — where mass transit options are plentiful and owning a car can actually be an expensive nuisance — to comprehend.

Nevertheless, the problem is real, and not confined to individuals. In the aggregate, local economies struggle to grow when wage-earners can't easily get to and from work because of thinly-stretched bus schedules, and school districts in low-student-density areas must spend far more on fuel per pupil than their urban counterparts.

Exacerbating the problem is that populations in rural communities tend to skew older as young people leave to find work. For such residents, the isolation resulting from immobility can be both a quality-of-life and a survival issue. In other words, when transportation options are insufficient for a region, it adversely affects a host of other already existing problems. Beacon Hill would do well to focus upon what to many legislators might seem like a distant problem, because whether or not they realize it, resolving it would help everyone in the state. Tax dollars spent hauling students long distances, for example, could be freed up for use elsewhere. Imaginative solutions like regionalization of systems, integration of short-haul private contractors with major trunk lines and even school consolidation could help create the environment for more robust local economies to flourish, which in turn would increase the commonwealth's tax revenues.

As Toby Gould, a Charlemont resident and member of the association put it, "These are people. And they have issues that need state support." Mr. Gould is right. They are also Massachusetts taxpayers, and they should not have to fight for their government's attention simply because they live off the beaten track.

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